NOTE: Both women and men experience emotional and physical abuse. In this article series, the male is presented as the abuser with the recognition that a female can also be the abuser and the male the abused one.
In Greek Mythology, the Sirens were three monstrous (but seductively beautiful) sea-nymphs who lured sailors to the shores of an island by their beautiful voices. Once too close, the ships would crash upon the jagged reefs beneath the waters. Shipwrecked, they were stranded on the shores until they starved to death. Abusive relationships often start and end in this manner: there is the siren call, the lure to a relationship of happiness, interesting and witty conversation, affection, understanding, warmth, and laughter—but then the relationship ends tragically, with emotional and sometimes physical abuse.
Emotional abuse typically starts with seemingly humorous jabs delivered with a “warm” smile and a grin or a gentle laugh:
- Look at them hips… they look like mud flaps!
- That dress really highlights your love handles!
- Looks like a 10-year-old pressed my shirt!
- Did you burn the water again?
The quick wit and charm that attracts a partner is weaponized in a slow, focused and at times deliberate manner. If the partner questions the small slights, she is told that she is oversensitive until she begins to believe it—and after all, she often hears how much he loves her. He apologizes quickly, but only to later deliver another dress down:
- You know, when you get botox, it makes you look like a reptile!
- What you think or feel doesn’t matter because you’re crazy!
- Are you having an affair? Huh, who you been talking to?
- You know, the reason I do this is because I love you, and besides, no one else would take care of you the way I do. You’re lucky I’m here for you… I’ve got your back!
- How come you’re always so needy? You’re such a nag!
- I gave you $30 yesterday, what did you spend it on? Where’s the receipt, I wanna look at it.
And so the pattern begins, and a strange, intertwining bond between love, friendship and insults slowly evolves and becomes rooted into the relationship.
Over time, the insults become more significant—not necessarily serious insults, but those that slowly cut the partner down in crafty ways. Then, maybe at a neighborhood party, another cutting comment will surface, and in front of the neighbors:
- Yeah, you should see how she cleans house, just shoves everything in the closet and under the bed, as if that solves our mess problem (followed by laughter and a wink).
- She’s spending it faster than I can make it… had to buy three new outfits last weekend, something about gaining weight. She’s constantly grazing in the kitchen. Tells me she has a thyroid problem, but she shovels down the garlic bread like a cavewoman!
At times, the abuse can take a more ominous tone, especially when it comes to sexual intimacy. He will ask for sex, but she is too tired from a 14-hour day. Angry at the rejection, he may insist:
- Know what your problem is, you’re frigid. Cold in bed! It’s like making love to a board! If I can’t get it at home, maybe I’ll get it somewhere else!
- Why do I spend more time talking to Brad’s friend Jess? Because she listens to me, at least someone is paying attention to me! Maybe she’ll be there for me when you won’t!
- That text (with sexual content or a picture) doesn’t mean what you think, you’re crazy. That’s your problem, you’re crazy and a whack-job, even your parents told me you were crazy before I married you!
- If you divorce me (or leave), I’ll take the kids and you’ll never see them!
- It’s your fault… in fact, all our arguments start because you’re always nagging (or running around with your friends, etc.)!
And sometimes, the comments take on a more threatening tone, such as when a client indicated that her husband, a security guard with a Taser, had approached her in front of their three children, and started discharging the device in her direction. He backed her into the corner, waving the Taser in front of her chest, all the while laughing loudly, then told her she was paranoid when she screamed in distress.
Often, emotional abuse can be spotted by how you feel or think within the relationship:
- Do you believe or feel as though you need permission to make decisions?
- Do you believe or feel as though no matter what you do, you can never please your partner?
- Do you find yourself trying to justify or make excuses for your partner’s behavior towards you to family or friends who question what is going on?
- To do you feel overly depressed, tired, anxious or unfocused, especially since the relationship took a turn?
- Do you find yourself isolated or disengaged from friends and/or family?
- Has your self-confidence gone down to the point that you are now questioning yourself?
In individual sessions with clients, I have asked:
- Therapist: “Monica, does this feel like love to you? Was this what you envisioned when you thought of being loved and respected by your husband?”
- Monica (hesitantly): “But I think he really loves me, he just has trouble showing it, and sometimes he gets carried away. Last night he cooked dinner and cleaned up afterwards. He also held my hand as we watched a sitcom… then we had sex.”
- Therapist (not challenging her, but asking her to look closer): “Monica, knowing what we know today, if nothing changes, where do you think this will be in one year? Five years?”
- Monica (long pause, tears in her eyes as she admits the truth to herself): “Much worse or we’re divorced? I think he’ll either have an affair, or I will, or I’ll just leave him.”
In therapy, I’ve found that many men and women can’t describe or identify emotional abuse, much less discuss it. They question whether they are just oversensitive or looking for the insult, thereby remaining silent. Much like a cancer, it is a silent killer to a relationship. And because there are no physical marks on the body (scars, bruises, broken bones), they often try to diminish the damage done by it. The single greatest hurdle to recognizing or talking about emotional abuse is the conditioned belief that relatives, friends and professionals will not take them seriously.